Bryn Jones on Keir Starmer and the deference of opposition
How is Keir Starmer connected to Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor (aka King Charles III)? There is no obvious physical connection. There is no apparent family connection, and they certainly weren’t school chums. Gordonstoun is more than geographically distant from Reigate Grammar. Yet despite the social cultural chasm between them, Starmer is a kind of political avatar of Charles III. For the famously unwritten British constitution incarnates Starmer as a royal clone. Despite its (limited) parliamentary democracy, the UK’s governmental powers derive not so much from electoral mandates as from delegation by the Crown. As head of state, the monarch chooses the prime minister to be her or his parliamentary steward. It is mere convention that the sovereign asks the head of the largest party in the House of Commons to lead a government. Legally, the sovereign could nominate whoever she or he pleases for the House to endorse. A constitutional crisis might ensue, but it could happen – for example, in the event of a hung parliament. On occasions, the choice of PM has come close to depending on the monarch’s whim.
As well as its considerable influence over legislation that might affect royal business affairs, there are other critical consequences of the logic of monarchic sovereignty. As was shown by the recent controversy over the oath of allegiance for Charles’s coronation, constitutionally speaking, we are as much subjects of the monarch as we are citizens of a democratic polity. Freedoms from arbitrary powers of the monarch’s state – of assembly, speech and of habeas corpus – are not so much positive rights as exemptions from those powers. This is a nuance that right-wing Tories are keen to perpetuate through their opposition to human rights legislation. The King retains residual, albeit much reduced, powers over ‘his’ government. His ministers wield the bigger sticks, such as legal punishment, declarations of war and fiscal discipline.
Most importantly, the appointment of a PM confers on this ‘commoner’ the capacity to act like a monarch. For he or she is, constitutionally, acting for and as the sovereign, exercising all the powers not trimmed back by legislation and legal judgements. Of course, the need for the collusion of cabinets and MPs can limit these powers. However, the PM is the sovereign’s representative in the polity in the same way as the Pope is God’s representative on Earth. A less formal consequence is that the PM has to adhere to similar standards of probity and demeanour – ‘respectability’ – as those expected of the monarch – standards which were put under severe by Alexander Boris Johnson. Conformity to the cultural respectability, the starch-shirted gravitas, usually displayed by the monarch is an unwritten element of the PM’s job description.
Which brings us to Sir Keir. As leader of His Majesty’s opposition, The Right Honourable member for St Pancras is potentially next in line to be the King’s stand-in. Whether consciously or subliminally, Sir Keir seems to have absorbed this onus on constitutional respectability, more so than any Labour leader since, probably, Ramsay McDonald – notorious in Labour movement circles for donning ceremonial ‘court dress’, complete with sheathed sword for major events. Starmer seems to have grasped with unusual alacrity the various honours and privileges by which the Crown-centric British establishment smothers upstart politicians. Understandably for an ambitious young lawyer, in 2002 he jumped ship from ten years of less respectable human rights advocacy to become a QC (Queen’s Counsel). But then, in 2014, after a five-year term as director of public prosecutions, he collected his knighthood. Arise, Sir Keir: Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (the ‘bath’ being the monarch’s hot tub). Who was this honour meant to impress? Not, presumably, the constituents or CLP members of St Pancras, whom he began to represent after the 2015 General Election.
However, the most significant item in Starmer’s trophy cabinet is his 2017 appointment to the Privy Council, providing the august title of ‘Right Honourable’. A strange move, as he was then only an MP of two years’ standing and a relatively junior member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. The Privy Council is comprised mainly of senior MPs, ex-ministers, peers and bishops, and a sprinkling of royals. No matter: being a Privy Counsellor confers considerable gravitas on MPs and brings them closer to the inner circles of the Crown’s orbit – literally, as membership includes the right to sit on the steps of the sovereign’s throne during House of Lords debates, plus a right of personal access to the monarch. More significantly, Counsellors must swear a special oath, which includes the promise not to ‘acknowledge’ anything that is against “the dignity of the Crown”. Privy Counsellors are a kind of political courtier. But credit Starmer with one insight: he seems to have recognised relatively early that loyalty to the regime for which the monarch is the font matters more for gaining positional power than loyalty to one’s party or electorate.
Once incorporated into this gilded cage, it is difficult to imagine most politicians taking an explicitly anti-monarchist, or even constitutionally reformist, stance. It’s tempting, as left-wing critics have done, to explain Starmer’s gravitation towards establishment and conservative orthodoxies in terms of an opportunistic and unprincipled desire to conform. There may be some truth in this depiction. Certainly, the persona of the idealistic young lawyer, who helped numerous victims of human rights violations and the defendants in the ‘McLibel’ case, seems to have faded as the establishment honours have piled up and avenues to the political summit have opened up. But Starmer wouldn’t be the first Labour leader to have succumbed like this. The more important factor is the structural one. Even though vestigial, the monarchy has regressive institutional powers. The monarch’s influential privileges are not confined to back-door vetoes on legislation or the financial privileges exposed in Guardian investigations. This system of governance accords prime ministers paramount powers because they are doppelgangers of the Crown. It also limits what His Majesty’s Leader of the Opposition can oppose because of the deferential mould into which the monarchic system requires the leader to fit. The atavism of Starmer suggests that this system ought to be the priority for reform rather than proportional representation or the relatedly over-privileged House of Lords.